NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – A former student and his father are taking North Kingstown school officials to court over their handling of disgraced former coach Aaron Thomas, filing the first lawsuit tied to the ongoing naked “fat test” scandal.
The unnamed 20-year-old former student and his father filed the legal challenge Tuesday in R.I. Superior Court. The duo alleges more than two dozen educators and school administrators – both past and present – negligently ignored and enabled Thomas’s inappropriate behavior.
The former high school boys basketball coach, currently under criminal investigation, has been accused by several former students of getting them to strip completely naked alone with him behind closed doors for two decades starting in the early 1990s. Once naked, the students said Thomas would measure their body fat using a caliper and direct them to do various stretches and poses in front of him.
The former student says in the lawsuit he was a high schooler in November 2015 when he was directed to remove his clothes and stand exposed in front of Thomas, “who had positioned himself so as to place his head within 12-15 inches of the boy’s genitals.”
The student – identified only as “John Doe 42” – was then “inappropriately touched by Thomas, who placed his hands within inches of the boy’s genitals,” according to the lawsuit.
“As a result of the foregoing harmful and offensive touching, abuse of the coach’s position and exploitation of the child, John Doe 42 sustained emotional distress and mental suffering, requiring mental health counseling,” wrote Timothy Conlon, an attorney representing the former student and his father.
“His embarrassment and shame about the foregoing was such that he could not disclose these events to his father for years,” he added.
Thomas has not been charged criminally and he’s previously denied any wrongdoing through his attorneys. He’s also not named as an individual defendant in the lawsuit, which Conlon explained was because “the problem is not about one single coach.”
“Thomas is not the one who destroyed the system,” he told Target 12. “Thomas may have revealed the problems and flaws within the system, but the persons who enabled that to go on for two decades — those are the people I am seeking to hold accountable.”
R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha and the R.I. State Police have launched a criminal probe into Thomas’s behavior, which was first reported by Target 12 last fall following a monthslong investigation. The attorney general has said he expects to announce the results of the probe within weeks.
Separately, Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha’s office is investigating the school district’s handling of Thomas over the years to see if any civil rights were violated. The North Kingstown Town Council has also hired a former Superior Court judge to review what happened.
Conlon has spearheaded a concurrent civil proceeding on behalf of multiple former students seeking to retrieve personal information they argue was improperly removed by Thomas from North Kingstown High. But the newly filed lawsuit marks the first civil legal challenge related to the ongoing scandal.
In the lawsuit, Conlon argues the educators and administrators allowed coaches to exercise power over students “without reasonable or appropriate supervision, and in an environment where unprofessional conduct and violations of boundaries as to officials’ personal interests versus professional obligations were openly permitted, routine and ignored, and indeed encouraged.”
“When misconduct of educators rose to a level such that it came to the attention of others, NKSD either ignored or silenced those raising questions, or dealt with the concerns ‘informally,’ in manners that effectively covered for the misbehavior, thereby effectively licensing it,” he wrote.
The lawsuit names several defendants, including North Kingstown School Committee members. In a statement, School Committee Chairman Greg Blasbalg said the school department and committee were aware of the lawsuit.
“Both the School Department and School Committee are cooperating with all investigations and will not have any further comment relative to the lawsuit or the investigation until such time as the investigations are complete,” he said.
Former Superintendent Phil Auger and former Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri were also named in the lawsuit. The two administrators exited abruptly last month around the same time that an internal investigation came out which was highly critical of their handling of allegations that surfaced against Thomas.
Auger and Mancieri have both defended their actions in dealing with Thomas. Auger declined to comment through an attorney.
Also named in the lawsuit are former superintendent Philip Thornton, former North Kingstown High School principal Gerald Foley, teacher and former athletic director Howard Hague and town finance director James Lathrop.
Another defendant is Keith Kenyon, who served as athletic director from 1985 until 2009, when he left amid allegations that he was commingling his business and school finances.
The lawsuit alleges Kenyon used a private for-profit company called Athletic IQ — which specialized in athletic data collection, among other services — to promote Thomas’s “performing body fat testing on the students of North Kingstown High School.”
The lawsuit additionally names 20 unidentified “John and Jane Roes,” described as other North Kingstown educators who are responsible for the enforcement of policies, investigation of misconduct and who allegedly had “knowledge of Thomas’s inappropriate conduct.”
“Steeped in a culture that prioritized loyalty to the school and athletic success over the safety of children, Defendants marginalized complaining parents, and students were not only not warned about the utter lack of professional boundaries, but swept into ‘going along’ with practices that were grossly inconsistent with appropriate professional standards, yet passed off as routine,” Conlon wrote in the lawsuit.